Short Story: Learning To Swim

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

In the dream I had, the lake bubbled like a hot spring. The water was crystal clear, and I could see all the way down to the bottom.

Antiheroes swim. Flesh and blood protagonists from popular 21st century television shows with enormous flaws and the deepest of secrets – Olivia Pope, Don Draper, Emily Thorne – they all swim.

As for me, the swimming started two months ago when I went to Ohio for a visit with family.

What used to be quaint about coming home in my 20’s is now pleasurable and somewhat decadent in the full disengagement of it all. I watch the patterned chartreuse lawns whip past from where I sit in the passenger side of my dad’s pickup truck. The landscape is vast and unchanging, a midwestern zoetrope that captures a progress so fine that only a trained eye can catch it.

The town square is a tidy snapshot of middle-to-upper class midwestern life. Its community consists of shiny families and tight packs of teenagers, couples carrying crisp shopping bags and lone 20-somethings killing time. The scene is peaceful and templated with all of the usual suspects in place: Starbucks, Regal Cinemas, Urban Outfitters, and a Bed Bath & Beyond.

I was rising early those mornings because I wasn’t yet accustomed to the quiet. I borrowed my dad’s truck to visit the local fitness center, which was attached to the hospital. “They’re prescribing physical fitness there instead of drugs,” someone had said. “It’s a good move.”

That first morning, all of the swim lanes were taken.

“Want to split a lane?” The lifeguard asked, waiting for the woman in the nearest lane to approach. She avoided making eye contact as the lifeguard squatted down to speak. I noticed the small bump beneath her swim cap – Class R. The older models had an emotional response chip that wasn’t quite flush to the side of the skull. “Bad engineering,” I thought.

“Okay to split lanes?” I overheard the lifeguard say.

“Fine, but it’s not my problem if I hit her,” the android said. “I ain’t gonna change the way I swim.”

The lifeguard smiled, as though he’d heard this a hundred times. “There’s room in the pool for everybody.”

Sometimes, software gets stuck in loops. It’s pretty common when a system isn’t refreshing properly. Emotions get trapped and feelings like excitement and joy, or anxiety or fear can repeat themselves for days, weeks, or even years. I once read about a case where an android got stuck in a loop for almost a decade. He refused to upgrade and eventually required a total overhaul, which basically meant starting from scratch.

I slid into the pool, teeth chattering.

I completed some laps using the kick board, then moved into the backstroke, breaststroke, and the dreaded front crawl. I’ve installed directions for breathing properly, so sometimes I give up on swimming altogether and work on configuring that for awhile.

I breathe from the left side, then from the right.

The calm, clear water floats up and disappears onto the miniature horizon right before I turn my head. Fat air bubbles rise, then explode into a long stream as I exhale. Breathing from the left side is the easiest. I also like pushing off from the lip of the pool because for a few brief moments, with my head down and my arms outstretched, I’m submerged underwater and can’t hear a thing.

I wonder how athletes do it. How do they swim in the ocean, when the temperature changes constantly and the end is far from sight? How do they not pause in-between laps, catching their breath or to adjust their goggles yet again?

That afternoon, I was tired from my swim and decided to take a nap. I’ve been crunching numbers lately in the periphery of my brain to make money while I sleep. I like the freedom that the gig provides – it’s way better than consciously bidding on ad networks or using my waking life on something else totally pointless.

I can also turn off stress responses while I sleep, unlike pretty much everyone else who has them hard-wired in. When I turn off everything, I mean absolutely everything – I can dream. They’re fully original dreams too, not engineered by some lab to keep me within my product function.

I guess that’s one advantage about being half-android.

It’s a secret I’ve been able to keep all my life. I’m one-half neural network, one-half bio-organism. The network has overridden my DNA in a bunch of parts, most critically the physical ones. Therefore I don’t age, which would be a dead giveaway.

So anyway – I was too tired to configure everything correctly, and I accidentally dozed off with zero software running at all. As a result, I began to dream.

In the dream, I was treading water in a lake. The lake was adjacent to a resort and surrounded by hills patterned with tall, fragrant evergreen trees.

I spotted the android lady from the pool. We made eye contact, and she walked down a steep hill to come say hello. She wanted to join, she said, but there were so many other nicer lakes to choose from.

Two of my cousins were also there. They stared in my direction from a distance, perfectly motionless. I couldn’t tell if they were stuck in a loop or just unhappy to see me. Both cousins live in Ohio, and because they’re family I already knew which models they happened to be.

My cousins, along with the android lady, are all Red Class R. I am a Blue Class D.

RCR and BCD are polar opposites in both form and function. This is because each model has a distinct proprietary operating system, which makes it challenging for one model to fully interact with the other. It’s not a feature parity issue by any means – both models have the same functions overall.

RCR is open-sourced, meaning that its codebase is available for anyone to use. The software (and hardware) of the BCD model is walled off to the public.

An RCR might say that a Blue Class D has too many complex features, all of which are overestimated. A BCD might say that RCR’s stricter neural network makes it too rigid, unwelcoming, and obtuse. While the RCR model gets stuck in loops because it doesn’t self-correct, I can tell you from personal experience that the BCD empathy chip overheats all the time.

It’s technically possible for an RCR and a BCD to work together, but for the most part it’s rare.

There are countless other differences.

It’s worth mentioning that in order to get an upgrade you need to get clearance from the city. If you’re lucky enough for that to happen, be prepared to shell out the big bucks. People fight for upgrades because they give you the best opportunities.

Anyways, back to the dream.

A huge wave was approaching – the perfect sine wave – and it was heading straight for us.

I glanced at my cousins and the android lady. The android lady took two steps towards the water and dove, swimming quickly towards the wave. I was amazed at how well she could swim, given that at the fitness center her skills were what my mom would call deceiving.

My cousins started running straight for the wave. As they ran, their expressions changed from that of indifference to pure joy. Didn’t they know that the wave was going to destroy us all?

My chest began to heave. I saw a bubble begin to form and jumped inside of it. The bubble began to float away, and I was safe.

Later over dinner, I tried to explain to my parents what happened with the android lady at the pool since I couldn’t tell them anything about the dream.

“Poor thing. Sounds like a bug,” someone had said.

Maybe the android lady couldn’t get an upgrade. After all, androids don’t prioritize interpersonal connections like one-hundred percent biological humans do. Maybe she was afraid of being terminated if she didn’t keep her technology stack as-is. I kept that thought to myself.

Besides, there are bugs in everyone with nasty things even left behind in the hardware. It could also be that some updates are corrupted intentionally, but I’m getting a little too wild in my thoughts now.

Anyways, tomorrow I go home.

Tomorrow I’ll return to my bubble, and I’ll leave them to theirs.

For now – I swim.

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